Bob McDonnell: Too temperate for spotlight?

Robert McCartney
Columnist August 29, 2012

If I were Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, I would feel more than a little resentful at getting a mere 10 minutes of cable-only television exposure at the Republican convention in Tampa. I mean, McDonnell can boast of a stronger record of conservative accomplishments than the evening’s big star, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, the keynote speaker.

McDonnell was workmanlike in the second-biggest speech of his career, after his 2010 response to President Obama’s State of the Union. On Tuesday, he made a solid, albeit predictable, case against the Democrats for supposedly disrespecting entrepreneurs and killing jobs.

Robert McCartney’s column on local issues appears Thursdays and Sundays in The Post’s Metro section. View Archive

But it’s safe to say the effort was viewed only by Republican activists and other political aficionados. The main broadcast networks didn’t carry McDonnell’s address, which aired on cable networks at 8:45 p.m. ABC, NBC and CBS began covering the convention more than an hour later.

McDonnell is too much of a party loyalist to say so, but I can: His achievements in Virginia, and his service as chairman of the Republican Governors Association, merited a more prominent slot.

Christie, whose widely broadcast address received mixed reviews, presides over a state with the nation’s fourth-highest unemployment rate. Virginia’s is 10th lowest.

Christie also let down his party in November’s state legislative elections, in which Democrats retained control of both chambers. In the same month, the McDonnell-led Virginia GOP effectively took back the state Senate, thus gaining full control of the General Assembly.

As for Wisconsin’s Rep. Paul Ryan, who beat out McDonnell and others for the vice presidential nomination, he has zero executive experience. He has spent almost his entire career as a pointy-headed policy wonk and Washington insider, precisely the background that the GOP faithful despise.

McDonnell has been state attorney general as well as governor (and he was a legislator before that). He also served his country as an Army officer. Neither Christie nor Ryan is a veteran.

For a term-limited governor such as McDonnell, who needs to maximize his future career possibilities, a convention speech could, and probably should, have been an ideal way to attract attention. If only it had come when the networks were paying attention.

And chairing the platform committee was meager consolation. The main thing anybody remembers about the GOP platform is that presidential nominee Mitt Romney pointedly disagrees with some of its most conservative positions (notably its opposition to abortion without exceptions for rape and incest).

McDonnell’s part in the supporting cast reflects three hard truths that will help shape his future as he looks for a job at the national level after (or before?) his governorship ends in early 2014.

McDonnell is not as combative and colorful a performer as Christie. The Virginian is energetic, articulate and earnest, but he doesn’t connect with audiences emotionally the way Christie does.

Although he’s conservative on budget matters, McDonnell is not as radical about shrinking the government as Ryan. The congressman’s outspoken advocacy on that issue vaulted him to the junior spot on the national ticket to calm fears in the GOP base that Romney is too moderate.

Finally, McDonnell can’t fully shed his troublesome record on women’s issues. In each of the past two years, he signed legislation that had the effect of restricting access to abortion. The most recent measure, which ignited fiery protest among women’s groups (not to mention ridicule from late-night comedians), requires women to undergo an ultrasound before terminating a pregnancy.

Such measures give Democrats and other critics a ready-made opportunity to remind voters of the controversial master’s thesis that McDonnell wrote in 1989 at Christian evangelical Regent University. Among other things, he said working mothers hurt families.

That background hurt McDonnell’s prospects for the vice presidency, given the GOP’s need to reach out to women. It would surely arise in the future should he run for the presidency or be considered again as a running mate.

On the other hand, McDonnell’s temperate, good-soldier style would be a plus in a lot of top-level jobs. If Romney wins, McDonnell would be a strong candidate for a Cabinet post, possibly attorney general or at least secretary of veterans affairs. If Obama is reelected, then there’s talk of McDonnell as chairman of the Republican National Committee.

Given his record in Virginia and his progress up the Republican hierarchy, we could see a lot more of Bob McDonnell at future GOP conventions.

I discuss local issues at 8:51 a.m. Friday on WAMU (88.5 FM). For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/mccartney .

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